On March 6, 1990, the operational career of the world’s fastest, highest-flying manned jet aircraft came to an end when U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and his reconnaissance systems officer, Lt. Col. Joseph Vida, flew a Lockheed SR-71A from Palmdale, Calif., to Washington Dulles International Airport. There the crewmen turned over the Blackbird to officials of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, for eventual display in the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles. The SR-71’s L.A.-to-D.C. flight time of 1 hour, 4 minutes and 20 seconds—at an average speed of 2,124 mph—established a record that will likely never be broken.
Barring a brief testing career with NASA and an abortive attempt in 1995 to resurrect Air Force operations, it was the end of an era for the airplane Stephan Wilkinson calls Lockheed legend Kelly Johnson’s “inarguable masterwork” (story, P. 24). The SR-71 had operated with virtual impunity over battlefields around the globe during its near quarter-century of service. Cruising at speeds in excess of Mach 3 and at altitudes above 80,000 feet, it remains perhaps the most amazing airplane ever built.
The same Blackbird that made the record run in 1990, serial no. 64-17972, had already flown two record-setting missions 15 years earlier. In September 1974, two Air Force crews took it from New York to London in less than two hours and from London to Los Angeles in less than four (see story here). While in Britain, 972 was displayed at the Farnborough International Airshow, where Johnson, who was on hand for the occasion, remarked of his masterwork, “It has exceeded all my expectations.”
In preparation for this issue and in celebration of Aviation History’s 20th anniversary (our premiere issue was September 1990), the magazine staff paid a visit to 972 at the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is just 15 miles from the World History Group offices. Hosted by editor emeritus Art Sanfelici, who volunteers there as a docent, we toured the museum and marveled at the SR-71’s sleek, powerful lines and record achievements. While Blackbird operations ended prematurely due to budget cuts, it is our hope that Aviation History’s “service career” will extend for another 20 years and beyond.